Battle of the Frontiers
First battles of the World War One
14 - 24 August 1914
author Paul Boșcu, February 2015
During the first weeks of war Germany invaded Belgium in an attempt to flank the French Army. The French responded with a series of counter offensives in the Ardennes and Alsace-Lorraine, which ultimately proved disastrous for the French who suffered heavy casualties.

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The Battle of the Frontiers was the gigantic clash that would make or break the hopes of both Germany and France. The two great competing visions of the war – the latest versions of the Schlieffen Plan and the French Plan XVII – were put to the ultimate test, moving at long last from theory to practice. The battles were fought along the Eastern French border and in South Belgium. In the end the Franco-British forces were driven back, allowing the German forces to invade Northern France.

There was the very distinct possibility of mutual failure in the fog of war, where the vagaries of chance melded with incompetence, and the unforeseen activities of opposing forces could thwart the most enterprising of commanders.

The tragic outcome was evident for all to see. French casualties during these failed offensives exceeded 200,000, of which over 75,000 were dead in just a few days of desperate fighting. The Battle of the Frontiers was not just a disaster for the French Army; it was a disaster for the whole French nation.

Belgium was squarely in the center of the target. The Belgians already knew that in the event of a conflict, if they let the Germans pass through their country, it would promptly be appropriated in one way or another by France or by Great Britain. Conversely, if they refused, they would have to face Germany.

The Belgian forts, like the French ones, had been designed as part of an integrated defense system, so Belgium’s twenty-four thousand infantry, with their field guns, were a key component of the defense. The forts themselves had no infantry. All they could do was fire their guns to prohibit the German advance.

The French had counted on the fact that the difficulty of taking Liège and Namur was such that the Germans would stay to the south of those strong points in their violation of Belgium. In the event they didn’t, the French estimated that it would take the Germans a great deal of time to reduce the Belgian forts. The key mistake was not the failure to recognize that the Germans would move through Belgium, but a wildly optimistic estimate of the capabilities of the defenders.

French troops moving slowly up into Belgium were told that the Germans were in terrible shape and had run out of food, and that the Belgians were winning. Wartime propagandists claimed that twenty-five thousand Germans were killed and wounded in the assault on Fort Barchon alone. Tales quickly circulated, allegedly from eyewitnesses, about human wave attacks by Teutonic hordes driven on by sadistic officers. So the French and British who first encountered the Germans were completely unprepared for what hit them: not waves of men, but waves of howitzer shells.

The German Army was a professional body that took war very seriously. The German main thrust, which would ultimately set the agenda, was the advance of the First and Second Armies across the Belgian border and deep into northern France. The neighboring Third Army would also pass through the Belgian Ardennes. The Fourth and Fifth Armies would advance through Luxembourg and the French Ardennes. This meant that effectively all five armies would be performing a gargantuan wheeling manoeuvre to overwhelm the French left flank. Meanwhile, the German Sixth and Seventh Armies would stand fast in Alsace-Lorraine.

The tools for the German plans were yielded by mobilization, which swelled the Army’s strength from 754,000 in peacetime to a rather more imposing 2,292,000. The reservists were recalled to the colors to be organised into seventy-nine divisions, of which sixty-eight were to be deployed on the Western Front.

As far as was humanly possible, the German Army was ready for war, superbly equipped and diligently trained over the years of peace. The infantry was armed with the Mauser Gewehr 98, a magazine bolt-action rifle which was an accurate weapon capable of a reasonable speed of fire.

The German soldier was drilled to be capable not only of individual accuracy but also of concentrating fire, in a squad or platoon, on to identified targets to maximise the impact. Each infantry regiment also had a machine gun company of six Maxim machine guns which could be utilised together to lay down an intense concentration of fire both in defence and in support of an attack.

German attack tactics emphasized the importance of winning the firefight before launching the attack in open order, with tightly controlled short bounds, the men dropping to the ground as required before finally over-running the enemy position and preparing for a possible counter-attack. All these functions were rehearsed on large training areas spread across Germany. These were the kind of exercises that were impossible to implement in more densely populated France or more parsimonious Britain and Russia.

The problem for the Germans with developing an attack through Belgium was the near-continuous belt of forest that dropped down into France and ran parallel to the Meuse, beginning as the Ardennes and ending up as the Argonne. There was only a small area in which to attack along the Meuse. German armies would have to march in an arc to attack on the western side of the forest.

The strength of the Belgian forts had alarmed the German generals. They were, indeed, immensely strong, subterranean and self-contained, surrounded by a ditch thirty feet deep. Infantry assault upon them was certain to fail. Their thick skins would have to be broken by aimed artillery fire, and quickly, for a delay at the Meuse crossings would throw into jeopardy the smooth evolution of the Schlieffen Plan. Yet Liège had to be taken. Such was the necessity, and such the urgency, that the German war plan provided for the detachment of a special task force from Second Army to complete the mission.

The French Army was also an extremely powerful continental army. But the vast size of the French Army concealed some fundamental weaknesses. Although great strides had been made to modernize the army, they had been hampered by the poisonous military politics of the day, which had affected its preparations for modern war. The French had yet to issue camouflage uniforms to their soldiers. The basic rifle issued to the French infantry was not equal to the demands of modern warfare. The French also lacked modern artillery weapons. There was a final defect in the French Army: a lack of proper tactical training.

A prevailing conservatism had stymied various attempts to introduce a modern camouflage uniform and the French soldier still stood proud in his bright red trousers and blue jacket which was almost indistinguishable from the uniform worn by his grandfather in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. When the lessons of the Balkan Wars had finally hammered home the necessity of a less obvious plumage, trials began to select a replacement. By the summer of 1914 the military authorities had plumped for ‘horizon blue’ (a light blue) but it was far too late. The French Army would go to war dressed in nineteenth-century uniforms.

The Lebel rifle dated back to the 1880s and, although modifications had been made, it was still heavy, over-long and slow to load; there were also problems in maintaining accuracy during rapid fire. The French air-cooled Hotchkiss machine guns were heavy but acceptable for the requirements of 1914.

The French had no modern howitzers, and prewar efforts to address the problem had been thwarted by the High Command’s inability to agree on what exactly was needed.

In contrast to the endless maneuvers of the German Army, the French lacked the large training areas necessary for realistic field exercises and were further hamstrung by stringent financial controls. Every conscript served for three years, but the training programme took place on a four-year schedule with the inevitable consequence that no recruit ever experienced a complete cycle. Training was centered on building up the physical strength and aggressive qualities of the individual, with a heavy concentration on bayonet drills.

The reservists were even less well catered for as, although they were called up for some forty days’ service a year, they did hardly any field exercises, spending most of their time in barracks up and down the country. None of the French reserve forces displayed the military competence of their German equivalents.

The French General Staff had enough forces at their disposal to block the Germans as they went through Belgium and to mount an attack into Alsace. There was an obvious synergism between the two fronts: once across the Vosges, the French could threaten both Alsace and southwestern Germany, and that is exactly what they tried to do. The idea was simple and logical. Liège had provisions to hold out for a month. Siege warfare was a long and protracted business.

Belgium had adopted the principle of compulsory military service only in 1912, following a strategic review, and it had taken little effect by 1914. Its army was one of the most old-fashioned in Europe.

The cavalry still wore early nineteenth-century uniforms: crimson trousers, fur busbies or Polish lancer caps. The infantry were in dark blue with oilskin-covered shakos, feathered bonnets or grenadier bearskins. The few machine guns were drawn, like the Flemish milk carts much photographed by tourists, behind teams of dogs.

Most of the artillery was allotted to the fortresses of Liège and Namur and the older defences of Antwerp. The army was actually outnumbered by the Garde Civique, the top-hatted town militias which descended from the days of the Thirty Years' War.

The 1911 Moroccan crisis moved army reform up the agenda, but only in 1913 was the army's size fixed as a proportion of the population. The aim was to have a force marginally superior to the numerical difference between the German and French armies and therefore sufficient to give the Germans pause for thought before invading France by way of Belgium. The case for neutrality was preserved by observing that such a force, if added to the German army, would give it such a preponderance as to persuade the French not to go to war in the first place.

The annual contingent of recruits was increased from 13,300 to 33,000. This scheme would be fully effective in 1926, when it would give Belgium a maximum strength of 340,000 men. The view of the French military attaché on the 1st of May 1914 was that 'the Belgian army could not be mobilized in 1914, neither in its new form which lacks men, cadres, staffs, material, nor its old form which has been smashed; it will have to improvise a temporary organization'. But the consequence of instant expansion was a loss in tactical effectiveness.

On mobilization the king, not the Chief of the General Staff, became Commander-in-Chief. The first decision which confronted him was the choice of the army's concentration area. In the event, the Belgian army acquitted itself with much more distinction in the opening days of the war than it had a right to expect.

The necessity of quickly capturing the fortresses at Liège in Belgium had much exercised the minds of German military planners in the years running up to the war. Liège lay within twenty miles of the German frontier and was defended by a series of twelve forts on either side of the Meuse River, which bisected the city. Thus it was the Belgian Army that would be the first to face the German onslaught. The Belgians hoped they would be able to hold the Liège fortress until Franco-British reinforcements arrived. The city fell first, ahead of the bulk of Belgian fortifications.

The city’s defences were constructed at the end of the 1800s to house some 400 guns behind reinforced concrete capable of withstanding shells of up to 210 mm caliber. The garrison contained some 40,000 troops under the command of Lieutenant General Gérard Leman. Liège had the dubious distinction of being the first city in European warfare to suffer an aerial attack: bombs from a Zeppelin killed nine civilians.

After much hard fighting and a fair amount of good fortune, German forces commanded by Major General Erich von Ludendorff of the Second Army managed to reach the center of Liège. By this time Leman believed his situation to be hopeless. Aware of the greater strength of the German forces and further harassed by reports of cavalry feeling their way behind his lines, he resolved to evacuate his mobile troops of the 3rd Belgian Division while they could still escape, on the second day of fighting. Thus, when the Germans pushed further into the Belgian city, they slowly became aware that the resistance was weakening.

A flawed deployment also impaired the Belgian defence. King Albert, as Commander-in-Chief, advocated a concentration on the Meuse, between Namur and Liège, so that the Belgian Army could delay the Germans further forward until Franco-British support arrived. However, the Chief of Staff, General de Selliers de Moranville, cautiously stationed most of his forces centrally behind the River Gette, where they could cover Brussels and, if necessary, fall back on Antwerp.

General von Ludendorff described the entry of his forces into the city: ‘As we entered, many Belgian soldiers who were standing about surrendered. Colonel von Oven was to occupy the Citadel. As a result of the reports he received, he decided not to do this, but to take the road toward Fort de Loncin, on the north-west side of the town, and take up a position at that exit from Liège. Thinking that Colonel von Oven was in possession of the Citadel, I went there with the brigade adjutant in a Belgian car which I had commandeered. When I arrived no German soldier was to be seen and the citadel was still in the hands of the enemy. I banged on the gates, which were locked. They were opened from inside. The few hundred Belgians who were there surrendered at my summons. The brigade now came up and took possession of the citadel, which I immediately put in a state of defence.’

Behind the Meuse fortifications, there was little to stop an invader, but Lemann only needed to hold out for a couple of weeks and the position could be heavily reinforced, which was why von Moltke had written of a need for a coup de main. The Germans needed to get through the positions before the Allies could bring up reinforcements to block them.

The German advance troops flooded across the Belgian border, sweeping aside the token Belgian frontier forces and driving on to Liège. Leman had got his men to entrench between the forts, so when the Germans launched their initial assault the defenders managed to stand firm.

The Germans had never actually done any of this before, and they made mistakes. Troops got lost, infantry assaults went astray, and a number of senior officers managed to get themselves killed. But after sorting through all the fog and confusion, the progression was simple enough.

The Germans were at this point in the strange position of having taken the city itself, but not the bulk of the surrounding fortifications. The huge German mortar shells battered the forts one by one into submission. When the Fort de Pontisse, which commanded the crossings over the Meuse to the north of Liège, fell, the gateway to Belgium swung ajar for the German First Army to begin its advance. General Leman was trapped inside Fort de Loncin when the Germans commenced a dreadful bombardment.

The German howitzers opened up on Fort Barchon and the fort surrendered. Barchon was one of the five large triangular-shaped forts of the place, and these forts were the only ones that were truly armored, so its abrupt fall was disquieting, doubly so since the fort was still capable of resistance. Moreover, Barchon, on the south side of the Meuse, was the key to the whole position. Once it was gone, the forts on either side were deprived of covering fire, and the Germans simply peeled the forts back from both sides.

The German howitzers opened fire on Evegnée, on Fléron, and then on Pontisse. Barchon’s neighbor, Fort de Evegnée, about two kilometers to the south, surrendered as well: direct hits from the 210s had popped rivets loose in the turrets, killing gunners, wrecking the guns, and piercing the concrete covering. And the really big guns had not yet gone into action. After they arrived, a shell penetrated the howitzer turret of Fort Chaudfontaine and set off one or more internal explosions, and the fort surrendered. Afterwards Pontisse surrendered, and so did d’Embourg, thus enabling the Germans to take possession of the key chunks of the right bank south of the city.

General Leman later described the final fall of the forts: ‘A shell wrecked the arcade under which the general staff were sheltering. All light was extinguished by the force of the explosion, and the officers ran the risk of asphyxiation by the horrible gases emitted from the shell. When firing ceased, I ventured out on a tour of inspection on the external slopes, which I found had been reduced to a rubble heap. A few minutes later, the bombardment was resumed. It seemed as though all the German batteries were together firing salvoes. Nobody will ever be able to form any adequate idea of what the reality was like. I have only learned since that when the big siege mortars entered into action they hurled against us shells weighing 1,000 kilos, the explosive force of which surpasses anything known hitherto. Their approach was to be heard in an acute buzzing; and they burst with a thunderous roar, raising clouds of missiles, stones and dust. After some time passed amid these horrors, I wished to return to my observation tower; but I had hardly advanced a few feet into the gallery when a great blast passed by, and I was thrown violently to the ground. I managed to get up, and continued

The Germans battered most of the remaining forts into submission: Fléron, de Liers, Boncelles and Loncin. A shell that hit Fort Loncin apparently blew up the magazine, and that was the end of the fort. The two survivors, Forts Flémalle and Hollogne, surrendered early the next morning.

For all their courage, Leman and his garrison had little impact on the main advance of the German Army, which had only just completed its rail mobilization. They may not have achieved much, but the determined resistance of the hitherto barely rated Belgian Army would act as an encouraging example to the Allies in the traumatic weeks that followed.

The non-appearance of French and British forces persuaded the Belgian Field Army to withdraw towards Antwerp. Two days later the Germans entered Brussels.

One can question whether the defence of Liège and subsequent resistance did much to delay the German advance. The Germans might actually have gained four or five days if Belgian opposition had been weaker but they still managed to cross Belgium more or less on time.

To maintain their schedule and avoid leaving substantial rearguards, the Germans implemented a policy of Schrecklichkeit — frightfulness —by attempting to subdue the population by executing some civilians or destroying property. Memories of ‘free firing’ by irregulars against the Prussian advance into France in 1870 were strong and had been reinforced by official stricture. There were, later enquiries would reveal, civilians who resisted the German invasion in Belgium in 1914.

Almost from the first hours, civilians were shot and villages burned. Priests were shot, too, perhaps because German officers remembered that it was the priests who had led the resistance of Catholic Brittany against the armies of the French Revolution in 1793.

‘Our advance in Belgium is certainly brutal,’ Moltke wrote on the 5th of August 1914, ‘but we are fighting for our lives and all who get in the way must take the consequences.’ The consequences were to get worse. Within the first three weeks, there would be large-scale massacres of civilians in small Belgian towns: at Andenne, Seilles, Tamines and Dinant. At Andenne there were 211 dead, at Tamines 384, at Dinant 612.

Germany interpreted international law to mean that an effective occupying force had the right to treat civilian resistance as rebellion and punish resisters by summary execution and collective reprisal.

At Liège, as one might expect in a situation where troops without combat experience deploy new and untried weapons, the Germans wasted time and made mistakes. Just how quickly they learned can be seen from what happened at Namur, a place defended by nine forts and some thirty-six thousand men. The Germans deployed heavy weapons to pound the forts into submission. The Belgians had also learned. The infantry stayed on and fought, so Namur was partly a siege and partly a series of engagements. Even so, Namur lasted only five days.

In terms of defenses, Namur was Liège all over again, although smaller. General Max Von Gallwitz, whose troops had been assigned the task of taking Namur, was a gunner. He deployed nothing but heavy weapons. The biggest mistake was the one made by the Allies in not quickly moving into Belgium and mounting a defense of the Meuse from the left bank.

What was particularly distressing to the Belgian garrison at Namur was that they had been abandoned and left to shift for themselves. As the British had never planned to land their troops until later, the quick collapse of the forts had trumped any help from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). But the French were already there on the other side of the frontier, and French units had reached the Sambre and the Meuse — they could easily have been at Namur in time to mount a serious defense of the position.

There was also a general failure to comprehend what was happening on the battlefield. About the same time as the new German heavy guns were obliterating the Allied defenses, artillery experts in London were denying the whole thing. Correspondents for The Times spoke of new German guns firing enormous 760-pound shells. Their claims were scathingly dismissed by experts writing in Arms and Explosives, who demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction that these weapons were a journalistic fantasy, concluding that ‘the mere idea of loading a 760 pound shot puts a further strain on the imagination’. And the war was only three weeks old.

The French had launched a major offensive up into Belgium. The Third and Fourth Armies attacked directly at the pivot of the German advance, going for the German Fourth and Fifth Armies, which were still largely inside Belgium. Already, words like ‘decimated’ and ‘annihilated’ were beginning to take on their literal meaning. In their first day of combat, entire elite French troops simply ceased to exist. France’s elite troops were being destroyed in small pockets all over the battlefield. The destruction of the French colonial troops was simply an extreme example of the disaster that overtook French arms, all in the space of one week in August 1914.

Both French attacks were well into southern Belgium, where a decisive victory would smash the pivot of the German Army and abort the movements of the three German armies wheeling through Belgium, as they would quickly be cut off from their lines of supply.

At the other end of the line, in an attack on le Tête de Béhouille, the Thirteenth and Twenty-second Alpine Battalions, also elite French units, lost half their men and both battalion commanders.

The two French armies totaled twenty divisions, the two German armies twenty-one. The two sides were thus about equal, but the core of the French Fourth Army was the Colonial Corps, ten regiments of the infanterie coloniale, France’s best-trained and most experienced soldiers. This was France’s equivalent of the ‘professional elite’ of the British Expeditionary Force.

The colonial infantry attacked south of Neufchâteau, just north of the small village of Rossignol, and was basically annihilated by German artillery. Essentially, there were no officers left. But then with the usually accepted ratio of two wounded soldiers to every soldier killed in action, there was no colonial infantry left for them to command.

In a combat that involves millions, it is easy to find an isolated massacre of one side or the other, and Allied propagandists wasted no time in finding some. There were places where German units were caught and massacred as well, as at Mangiennes, north of Verdun. The problem for the French was that on the German side such massacres were the exception.

The French mobilization had concentrated all five of their field armies in northeast France. French troops had crossed the German border in an effort to secure an early morale-enhancing victory in Alsace. At first the French encountered a weak German resistance, but the German army was preparing its counterattack. The French suffered defeat ahead of their main attack.

Plan XVII had hardly proscribed General Joseph Joffre’s options, for his armies were then well placed to counterattack northwards into Belgium, or thrust either side of the German Metz-Thionville fortress complex where Joffre believed the main strength of the German Army would be concentrated. In fact, his first operation had already been launched on the right flank, close to the Swiss border, when the First Army was ordered to send its VII Corps forwards under the command of General Louis Bonneau.

The French broke through and occupied Alsatian towns. But the early advance betrayed a surprising timidity. Far from storming ahead across the mountains in an all-out offensive, French troops moved slowly and cautiously. At the same time, the German Seventh Army, commanded by General Josias von Heeringen, was preparing a counter-attack, hoping to cut off the invaders.

The French considered themselves anything but interlopers, as can be seen from Joffre’s stirring proclamation to the people of Alsace: ‘Children of Alsace! After forty-four years of sorrowful waiting, French soldiers once more tread the soil of your noble country. They are the pioneers in the great work of revenge. For them what emotions it calls forth, and what pride! To complete the work they have made the sacrifice of their lives. The French nation unanimously urges them on, and in the folds of their flag are inscribed the magic words, “Right and Liberty. Long live Alsace. Long live France.”

At first the French met with very little resistance and pushed forwards to take the town of Altkirch after a brief skirmish which was topped off as per the manual with a dramatic bayonet charge. They then pushed on to take Mulhouse without further opposition. All seemed well, but this was far too weak a force to be pressing so deep into hostile territory.

The French would not celebrate for long. The German forces stormed back, unceremoniously ejecting the French from Mulhouse. With no significant reserves available, Bonneau pulled swiftly back to Belfort in order to avoid being cut off by the superior German forces massing against him. This chastening dénouement provided a somewhat cruel disillusionment to all those French Alsatians who had prematurely celebrated the relief of Mulhouse. Overall it had been a humiliating experience. Recriminations were swift and Joffre dismissed the hesitant Bonneau, who was somewhat unfairly blamed for this reverse.

Although irritated at this failure, Joffre still believed that the Germans had not committed their reserve divisions to the frontier battles. He was therefore confident that he would be facing just six, instead of the actual eight, corps in the Alsace-Lorraine area when he launched his main attack. He timed his attack to coincide with the expected Russian offensive on East Prussia. Once he was clear as to the line of the German assault in Belgium, he planned an attack north of Metz-Thionville striking at the weak hinge of the main German attack. The Germans were willing to cede ground as the French advanced across the border into Lorraine.

Joffre swiftly bolstered his forces on the right, creating a new Army of Alsace to be commanded by the distinctive figure of General Paul Pau, a one-armed veteran of 1870. This new army would again attack towards Mulhouse and secure the right flank.

The First French Army under General Auguste Dubail would push through the Vosges Mountains and towards the Rhine, while the Second Army under General Édouard de Castelnau would advance on the left, driving towards Morhange.

The German Sixth Army, led by Crown Prince Rupprecht, and the Seventh Army, led by General Josias von Heeringen, were acting in accordance with the overall strategy laid down by the Chief of the German General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, which aimed to suck in the maximum number of French troops.

While the French Second and First Armies coordinated their actions only as well as sporadic telephoning could arrange, the German Sixth and Seventh fought as a single entity. Here was the anticipation of a new trend in command, which would bring into being formations as large as existing communication systems could control.

The French armies advanced up to eighteen miles in the first three days of the offensive: Mulhouse fell to Pau, Dubail captured Sarrebourg and de Castelnau’s men closed in on Morhange. Throughout, the Germans fought an excellent delaying battle, falling back, trying to avoid committing too many infantry units, while using artillery to inflict heavy casualties. A crushing counterattack was launched against the overstretched French Second Army in the Battle of Morhange. The French were forced to withdraw to their starting points on all fronts.

The French armies were attacking on wide, and widening, fronts, the terrain was often difficult and, in such circumstances, it was all but inevitable that significant gaps would begin to open up between formations. There was also the failure by the French commanders to organize and maintain tactical reserves ready to counterattack in the event of a reverse.

After a week of hard fighting involving around three quarters of a million men, the French had made only modest territorial gains. Mulhouse was a nice symbol for the public, but the city had no military importance. In a week, the French had gained a symbol, while the Germans had obtained the cornerstone of their offensive in the West. The Allies, without even realizing it, had run out of time. Liège’s defenses had collapsed, and German armies were streaming south and southeast towards France.

General Louis Bonneau's VII Corps advanced into Upper Alsace. Bonneau was soon forced, by German troops from Strasbourg, to retire. The subsequent actions rapidly revealed that, for the French infantry, offensive spirit would not by itself triumph over modern artillery and machine guns. The French, suffering enormous losses, were pushed back.

Crown Prince Rupprecht was well aware of the opportunities that lay before him and pleaded to be allowed to go on the offensive. This was strictly contrary to the overall German strategic plan, but short-term tactical temptations overwhelmed long-term good intentions.

At Morhange the French artillery found themselves out-ranged by the heavier and better sited German guns and were generally doomed to lose any counter-battery duel. This then left their infantry prey to heavy bombardments prior to German attacks.

When the Second Army fell back in considerable confusion, this uncovered the flank of the First Army and then the Army of Alsace. They, too, were forced to surrender their gains, and they tumbled right back to their original start lines.

After the French were pushed back, Rupprecht envisaged a breakthrough to capture Nancy which would thereby threaten the envelopment of the right flank of the main French forces. Once again Moltke assented and Rupprecht launched a major offensive between Toul and Épinel. However, this time the French were in prepared defensive positions and put up stiff resistance for four long days, thereby consuming huge numbers of German reserves with their dogged resistance. For the Germans, this ill-considered addition to the main plan was proving very costly.

The main French reconnaissance force had repeatedly crossed the Ardennes without detecting the enemy's presence. As a result, the French High Command assured the regional commanders that ‘no serious opposition need be anticipated’. Reports from French aviators had confirmed this wholly false judgement. The Germans were better informed than the French. Their aviators had reported significant enemy movements on the front.

The Crown Prince's army had remained in its positions while its heavy artillery had brought the French frontier fortresses of Montmedy and Longwy — both old and ill-defended — under bombardment, but on the morning of the 22nd of August both it and Fourth Army were on the march. The French would fall into a trap.

The strength of the Germans on both their wings suggested — given the French underestimate of the total German strength in the west — that they would be weak in the center. Moreover, a French thrust through the Ardennes into Neufchateau and Arlon would outflank the German right wing on its own left and so frustrate the German maneuver. But Joffre's picture of the German deployment was still only partial. He failed to realize that the thrust of the 3rd and 4th French armies would be directed into the hub of the German wheel.

Joffre planned a second great offensive by his Third, Fourth and Fifth Armies striking through the lower Ardennes north of Metz-Thionville. Joffre’s mind was still firmly centered on the Ardennes offensive, intended to break through the German center and threaten the flank of the German Second Army wheeling through Belgium. The series of encounter battles that ensued on the 22nd of August were bloody affairs, complicated by the wooded hilly terrain and poor visibility caused by fog. When the French advanced they often found the Germans dug in on the forward edge of thick woods. At the end of that terrible day, the French fell back.

In a day of disasters for the French, the worst calamity was that suffered by the 3rd Colonial Division at Rossignol some ten miles south of Neufchâteau. Six battalions launched successive attacks on entrenched German troops in the woods just north of the village. Much of the fighting was confused in the extreme. Captain Ignard’s testimony of the battle speaks for itself: ‘ We spotted some infantry in the bushes on our right; they soon fell back, running. A voice cried out from our Company, “Don’t shoot, they’re French!” Lieutenant Colonel Vitart beckoned me towards him, shouting out loud, for the noise was deafening, “Extend to the right and at them with the bayonet!” I return to my Company and give the command, “Forward the Seventh: fix bayonets!” Followed by my four sections I entered the woods as ordered. We moved quickly, on the road near to us we can hear the bugles calling – it lifted the men – they were a superb sight. But the wood was thick and as the sections advanced at varying speeds, soon I could no longer see all of my company. We advanced 300 to 400 metres. The charge was hardly begun when it faltered under rapid fire at close range from the enemy sheltering behind e

The growing awareness of the German presence marching through Belgium further north had already forced a major adjustment in the role of the Fifth Army under the command of General Charles Lanrezac. It was moved across to the northwest to take up a line along the River Sambre, ready to attack the German right wing when it appeared.

The Fourth Army, commanded by General Fernand de Langle de Cary, was to move on Neufchâteau in central Ardennes. Joffre was wrong to conclude that the Germans would not fight in the wooded and broken ground of the Ardennes but would be found on the further side.

The Third Army under General Pierre Ruffey would advance towards Virton and Metz. Here it would encounter head-on the German Fourth Army commanded by Duke Albrecht von Württemberg and the Fifth Army commanded by Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, which had been pushing cautiously into the Ardennes, carefully entrenching at every pause.

The French poilus were obvious enough in their red and blue uniforms, but their officers stood out even more, adorned as they were with white kepis and gloves. Rossignol witnessed a terrible slaughter. Captain Ignard, although badly wounded, was in a sense lucky: the post-war monument for the 3rd Colonial Division commemorates 4,083 soldiers killed on the 22nd of August.

In these battles, few people at any level of command had much idea of what was happening, and for the troops on the ground it was all utterly baffling. Prewar tactics seemed to have no impact. Bayonet charges led only to more slaughter, while calling up artillery support was often doomed to failure. Another French participant, Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Lebaud, had this to say of the battle: ‘How was I to get forward in these conditions? The answer to this question was quite instinctive: I must call on the support of the artillery. I sent a note to the colonel to let him know the situation and to ask for the assistance of the artillery. At that time no officer was attached to liaise between the battalion making an attack and the gun batteries charged with supporting the assault.’ Lebaud appealed in vain as he did not get the help he needed so badly. Sometimes the gunners were too far behind, sometimes too close and caught under fire from the longer-range German guns. Whatever the reason, the infantry were often left in desperate straits.

The battlefield was littered with French units retreating in various states of confusion and disarray, physically or metaphorically lost. It had been a day to remember for all the wrong reasons: it is shocking to record that some 27,000 Frenchmen died on the 22nd of August alone. This was an almost unprecedented slaughter in the long history of warfare. Private Désiré Renault described the French retreat: ‘All day I was fighting, I was slightly wounded by a bullet that went through my haversack, passed through my overcoat, scraped across my chest and hit me in the hand. I show the bullet to my friend, Marcel Loiseau, and put it in my wallet. I continue the fight, until Loiseau is hit in the leg and we see my lieutenant cut through by a bullet. The fight goes on, a lot of my friends lying dead or wounded all around me. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, while shooting at the enemy occupying a trench 200 metres from me, I was hit by a bullet in the left side, I felt a terrible pain as if I’d broken a bone. The bullet passed through the whole of my body, through the pelvis and lodged above the knee. Immediately I was suffering greatly with a burning fever. The bullets continue to rain

On the next day of the Ardennes offensive, Joffre wanted to renew the offensive but was soon thwarted. It was simply impossible to reorganize the shattered units; more pertinently, the Germans were driving deep into the French troops, throwing the Third and Fourth Armies right back to their start lines. There was widespread chaos; no one knew what was happening and terrible mistakes were made which added to the massive casualty toll. Yet it was not all one-way traffic. This was open warfare and the Germans, too, could be caught unawares. When they had the chance, the French 75 mm guns could provide formidable opposition.

Lieutenant Jacques Cisterne of the 300th Infantry Regiment described the events of that day: ‘The weather continued to be splendid. Colonel Colombier, commanding the Regiment, gave the order the evening before to dump in the nearest field to their primitive trenches, the sheaves of straw which the men had gathered to help spend the night in the wood. This task although hardly explicable in the circumstances, was nevertheless carried out punctually and without much complaint. At last when everything was ready to set out on the march, another order was issued for the officers and NCOs to inspect their men to ensure they were correct in their marching order. After a good half hour devoted to the execution of these various orders emanating from another era, the Battalion was finally on the road, the regimental transport at the head of the column, followed by Colonel Colombier on his horse, with each of the four Companies marching behind in columns of four but there was a failure to put into effect any of the precautionary measures necessary for any movement in the field – the vanguard, flankguard or rearguard detachments. We had hardly gone 100 metres when we spotted behind us an artil

The French shells were streaming down from the skies, killing and maiming Germans. But they were soon located by German aircraft, those eyes in the skies that were something new to warfare. Once they spotted the battery positions, they used flares to work a simple system of artillery observation bringing shells down on their target. A French soldier, Paul Linier described this system: ‘Another aeroplane; the same black hawk silhouetted against the pale blue sky which at every moment was getting brighter. The men swore and shook their fists. What tyranny! It was marking us down! Suddenly the enemy’s heavy artillery opened fire on the hills we were occupying as well as on a neighbouring wood. It was time to change position, since for us the most perilous moment is when the teams come up to join the guns. A battery is then extremely vulnerable. Before the enemy could correct his range the Major gave an order and we moved off to take up a fresh position.’

It was obvious that the Germans were more tactically astute, better equipped and far more skilled and drilled in the arts of war than their opponents. It was not that the French did not fight hard: instances of sangfroid and heroism, grit and determination abound. But it was all for nothing. The 24-year-old Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle summed up the essence of the experience in a few short words. ‘Suddenly the enemy’s fire became precise and concentrated. Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of the shells grew stronger. Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and the humble corpses. With affected calm, the officers let themselves be killed standing upright, some obstinate platoons stuck their bayonets in their rifles, bugles sounded the charge, isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose. In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire.'

The French POW’s elicited little sympathy from their German opponents, as witnessed by a young German civilian, William Hermanns, in Koblenz: ‘I saw French prisoners escorted over the Rhine bridge to the fortress Ehrenbreitstein. They wore red trousers, and the people were amused that France should send its soldiers as living targets against our troops that were so efficiently camouflaged in uniforms of earth grey. Women singing “Deutschland Über Alles”, accompanied these prisoners-of-war. I watched a well-dressed woman shout in French to one of the prisoners, who was wearing patent leather shoes, “You thought you’d dance into Germany, didn’t you?”’

The French planned to renew the attack. But the losses, particularly of officers in battalions with a high proportion of reservists, were unsustainable without consolidation. The French retreat began.

The Battle of the Frontiers had not gone well for France. The Germans advanced through Belgium, capturing Brussels and sweeping aside the Belgian Army, which fell back on Antwerp. Joffre had still not grasped the scale of the German threat and issued orders for an attack across the Sambre. This offensive intent would be forestalled when von Bülow launched his own offensive, crossing the Sambre between Namur and Charleroi. Over the next two days of severe fighting known as the Battle of Charleroi, the Fifth Army was attacked on both flanks and forced back, first from the Sambre, then from the Meuse.

The main drive would be launched by the German First Army commanded by General Alexander von Kluck on the far right flank, alongside the Second Army under General Karl von Bülow and the Third Army commanded by General Max von Hausen – together a truly formidable force.

Joffre began to reconsider, issuing orders that first directed Lanrezac’s Fifth Army into the angle between the Meuse and the Sambre, as a precautionary measure, then instructed Lanrezac to join with the British Expeditionary Force in operations against the left wing of the German battle line, whose appearance in great strength in Belgium could no longer be denied.

The only real opposition facing the Germans was the French Fifth Army commanded by General Charles Lanrezac, who, with just fifteen divisions, found himself confronted by the thirty-eight divisions of the German Second and Third Armies. Lanrezac had long been worried by the vulnerability of his left flank, where it was intended to station the four divisions of the British Expeditionary Force when they had completed their mobilization and concentration at Maubeuge. But Joffre did not share Lanrezac’s misgivings, not least because he underestimated the scale of the German onslaught.

Lanrezac, with perfect orthodoxy, had ordered the bridges to be held only by outposts, while the bulk of the Fifth Army waited on higher ground, whence it could advance to repel a German crossing or mount its own offensive across the bridges into Belgium.

At Auvelais, halfway between Namur and Charleroi, the French were overlooked from the far bank, and requested permission either to cross or to fall back. Their regimental commander, bound by Lanrezac's instructions, refused but sent more troops to support them. The reinforcements discovered more bridges than their orders indicated had to be defended. The Germans, sensing the French weaknesses, found a unguarded bridge, thus securing a foothold on the other side of the Sambre.

On two sectors of the French frontier, Alsace-Lorraine and the Ardennes, the Germans had, by the end of the war's third week, achieved significant victories. The scene of action was now to shift to the only sector as yet untouched by major operations: the frontier with Belgium. It was there that Germany's offensive plan must succeed if Schlieffen's dream of a six-week war were to be realised. The seizure of Liège had laid the ground.

Though parts of the Fifth Army tried to resume the offensive, it was the Germans who made ground, particularly on the right, where they got across the water obstacle of the Sambre-Meuse confluence in strength. Lanrezac concluded he was beaten and telegraphed Joffre that as the ‘enemy is threatening my right on the Meuse ... Givet is threatened, Namur taken ... I have decided to withdraw the Army tomorrow.’

Despite the tactical defeats which they had borne, the French armies were intact. True, some units in the Battle of the Frontiers suffered horrific casualties. Total French losses reached 260,000, including 75,000 dead. But the impact varied considerably according to regiment, division, and even army. France was able to make up its losses. In the same period, fifty-four of eighty-six German divisions were in action, including seventeen reserve divisions to only four French. The Germans suffered 260,000 casualties while the British had 30,000.

The 1st and 2nd French Armies in Lorraine, and the 5th in the north, had suffered less than the 3rd and 4th in the Ardennes: the 3rd had 13,000 killed or wounded out of 80,000 infantry engaged.

Italy's prompt declaration of neutrality enabled the dissolution of the French army guarding the Alps, and the reallocation elsewhere of its five regular divisions and one territorial. Two more divisions arrived from North Africa. A third British corps, albeit only of one division initially, was formed. The Entente armies grew stronger, not weaker, after the Battle of the Frontiers.

From Alsace, through Lorraine and the Ardennes to Charleroi, the Allied armies had been forced to retreat. Joffre reported to General Alphonse Messimy that his armies would be passing from the offensive to the defensive: 'Our object must be to last out as long as possible, trying to wear the enemy out, and to resume the offensive when the time comes.' The French had greatly underestimated the Germans both in terms of tactics and strength. The opening defeats were the sanction which Joffre needed in order to reconstitute the French army.

Joffre's critics suggest that these initial defeats were self-inflicted, and harp on the slowness with which he realized the full scale of the German envelopment through Belgium. This is only partly justified. The German advance did not begin until the 18th of August. Thus, little could be clear before then: between the 6th and 15th of August French cavalry corps conducted a long-range reconnaissance into Belgium but found nothing, as the Germans had not yet begun to move. However, after the 18th of August preconception played powerfully on Joffre: as late as the 23rd of August he was underestimating the German strength in Belgium by 300,000 men.

The aftermath of the Battle of the Frontiers looked even worse. Companies and battalions passed in indescribable disorder. Mixed in with the soldiers were women carrying children in their arms or pushing little carts in front of them, girls in their Sunday best, old people, carrying or dragging a bizarre mixture of objects. Entire regiments were falling back in disorder.

As the French and British armies fell back from the frontiers, retreat threatened to become rout. Joffre was alive to the danger. The French military authorities had been accorded the right to use the death sentence whenever immediate repression was essential. The ministry of war instructed officers to carry out death sentences within twenty-four hours unless there were good grounds for clemency. This became the norm. Soldiers were executed without trial.

Retreat did not turn into rout. The resilience of the French army's morale, despite the heavy casualties and tactical defeats of August, argues for the positive functions of punitive and repressive discipline. But this was not the only reason why the army did not collapse. The retreat generated its own determination.

No generals in the history of warfare had commanded such large armies on such a broad front as did Joffre and Moltke. The problems of communication and control were enormous. However, by placing the General Headquarters close behind the front at Vitry-le-Franqois, Joffre positioned himself so as to be able to maintain regular contact with his armies.

Age was not the only problem of the French high command; German generals were no younger. In 1900 promotions had become subject to ministerial approval. General Andre had promoted officers of proven republicanism. Professional qualities were at a discount. The average period spent as a lieutenant-colonel in the pre-1914 French army was 3.5 years. By contrast, Foch and Fayolle, who would both become marshals of France but were both educated by Jesuits, were lieutenant-colonels for five and eight years respectively. Joffre, with Messimy's support, began the process of restoring professional qualifications as the prime claim to rank.

The fighting on the frontiers had been in broken and wooded ground, demanding indirect fire and high-angle elevations. The French infantry had suffered from the attentions of the German heavy artillery, often dug in, placed in prepared and covered positions, and capable of inflicting damage at long ranges.